...reflections from a Compassionate Listener

Friday, May 28, 2010

Sulhita Youth

                                              (photo credit: Sulhita Youth Project)
In the harsh reality of our region, Jewish and Arab youth have few opportunities to meet their peers of "the other side". In such a formative period of their lives, gaining first-hand experience beyond rigid stereotypes, social norms and negative media coverage is crucial for creating a different future for our nations. - Sulhita Peace Project
The far majority of Israeli and Palestinian teenagers grow up here in Israel and Palestine in a climate of intense fear of the “other’. With only a few exceptions, villages, towns and schools are all segregated, with little opportunity to meet one another, let alone in any kind of humanizing way. Thus, it’s easy to perpetuate the fears and stereotypes that hold the psychological barriers in place. And since most Israeli Jews do not learn Arabic, and most Palestinians, whether living in Israel, the West Bank or Gaza, do not learn adequate Hebrew, the language barrier is yet another hurdle even for those who wish to connect.

(Photos: Ellen Greene and Leah Green)

In this general climate of disconnection and fear, the work of Elad Vezana, director of the Sulhita Peace Project, is like a pristine spring in the desert. Sulha, the parent organization, is well known for their summer festivals that have brought over 12,000 seekers together from across the region for music, ritual, listening circles and healing. Since 2001, Sulha has created many opportunities for personal encounter across ethnic and religious lines, for those wanting to break through the barriers and meet their neighbors. (“Sulha” is the actual name for the ancient, indigenous Palestinian conflict resolution process, that is still practiced today in Palestinians and Bedouin towns and villages throughout the region.)

A newer development within the Sulha organization is the Sulhita Youth Program. Yesterday evening we waited excitedly for Elad’s visit – our first listening session of the delegation. After careful thought, Elad decided to give the lead to the youth. He arrived at our guesthouse in the Old City of Jerusalem with his Sulhita caravan - including seven Jewish and Palestinian Sulhita facilitators, ages 17-20.

These young men and women have participated in numerous Sulhita gatherings – including their trademark 5-day program in the desert that brings together up to 80 young Jews and Palestinians - including from Gaza and the West Bank – for a powerful encounter program.
We were eager to hear from the youth and they took the lead. They led us in a name game and another ice-breaker that had us all laughing and relaxing together within minutes. Afterwards, we sat down to listen to their stories.

A young Israeli woman who deferred her army service until next year, and is now completing a year of national service, told us about her first time at the Sulhita, which was just this past year. “I was shocked how quickly we came together. Before this I never had the chance to know a Palestinian. It was so hard when it was over. I felt like it was a beautiful dream. I stay in touch with my friends and that makes me strong. I feel I really know them now. I live near Tel Aviv and out there we don’t have a lot of opportunities to meet Palestinians. Sometimes now, my friends from home express jealousy that I’ve had this opportunity. When they see my Palestinian friends writing on my Facebook page, they are curious, and envious that I have these connections. I think the only way anything will change is if we connect with ‘the other’ when you’re young. I’m nervous about entering the army. I deferred my service by one year. This year, I’m doing national service. I’m afraid how going into the army will change things for me.”

The Sulhita youth project is now five years old. We heard about one of the oldest participants, a young Israeli man who became a Sulhita facilitator, and then began his army service two years ago. The Israeli army put him at the toughest checkpoint in the Bethlehem area, and he suffered a lot from the stress and level of dehumanization.

One day, a Palestinian Sulhita member from Bethlehem needed to travel to Jerusalem for a Sulhita meeting. The Israeli soldier noticed him at the checkpoint and greeting him warmly. After arriving at the Sulha meeting, the Palestinian participant shared about this interaction, and actually cried, he was so moved that the Israeli soldier reached out to make a human connection. Such a simple act, in the midst of the insanity of the checkpoint was a profound gesture (checkpoints are known for the harsh and dehumanizing behavior of the Israeli soldiers). The Israeli soldier recently reported that one of the ways he feels he’s been able to help in his army unit, is by having informal listening sessions in the evening with the other soldiers. The daily stress of working at the checkpoint is immense, and this soldier feels it’s his way of bringing healing energy – to allow some of the stress to deescalate.

One young Palestinian man in our circle described his frustration with the checkpoints – how they separate him from being able to visit other towns and cities nearby, to be with his friends in a casual way after their sports events, etc. He said that at any Sulhita gathering, there are those who come late. While it’s clear that the Jewish participants suffer from “personal problems”, which always account for their tardiness, it’s always the checkpoints that hold up the Palestinian participants by as much as 5 hours. He described his own thought process when he approaches a checkpoint: “I see the soldier that I’ll have to deal with, and I am always asking himself, ‘who is this person in front of me and how is he going to deal with me?’ I will often try to joke or make contact with the soldier. Often, the soldier will be rude, and say something obnoxious to me. But ultimately, I believe in peace with all my heart, and I always try my best to stay positive in my thinking, and to continue loving everyone as my personal commitment to the path of peace.”

Elad, the Sulhita director, is so clearly dedicated to the empowerment of these youth leaders. He never interrupts them, or tries to talk about his own life or work. When I asked him if we could hear about his background and what led him to this work, Elad told us about a transformative moment in his life: “I was a tank commander in the Army. I served in Lebanon and Gaza…I saw my good friend killed nearby me, and I also killed people during my army service. One day, I was part of an ambush for Palestinians who were wanted from the Jenin area. At one point, I was told to move to the south one kilometer. There, I found a young Palestinian boy - perhaps 8 years old - sitting on a rock, reading a book. My commander told me to tie his arms and lets with plastic cuffs until we were finished with the operation. So I cuffed him. I walked away from the boy for a second and turned around to look back at him, and suddenly I felt completely naked…it was as if I was looking at the situation and seeing myself with different eyes. I told the guys in my unit that I have to release the boy. They told me that I would be court marshaled – they urged me not to do it. But I had to. I said I can’t live another second like this, and I untied him. The boy ran back down the hill to Jenin, and within minutes we all heard the whistles, which is how Palestinians communicate to one another that Israeli soldiers are near. We were discovered, and our operation was ruined. That was the first time I ever looked into the eyes of a Palestinian person – it was like humanity cracked through. So many other experiences came later, but that was the first."

At the end of the evening, we asked the young men and women from Sulhita if they wanted to share a powerful moment that they experienced in the camp. A young Israeli woman told this story: "We had a listening circle, and afterwards I collapsed. I just cried and cried. All I wanted was a hug, but I didn't know how to say it. There was a Palestinian mother there. Without saying a word, she came to me and held me and spoke to me. I couldn't understand any of her Arabic, but somehow, I knew what she was saying to me. Afterwards, they translated her words to me and it was confirmed...I had understood every word.

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